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Writing the Roles She Wants

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"I've been acting for so long, no one is going to think that I'm the wife of some producer who can't get an acting job and therefore writes a play with a part for herself [that her husband will produce]." So asserts actress-writer Polly Draper, who is perhaps best known for her four-year stint as the prickly Ellyn on the loved-or-abhorred TV drama "thirtysomething" (1987-1991). And Draper's husband, Michael Wolff, is a composer, not a producer.

That said, Draper launched her writing career to give herself the kind of roles that were not forthcoming. At the same time, she continues, the two scripts she has written to date—the screenplay for 1998's "The Tic Code," in which she co-starred with Gregory Hines, and her current Off-Broadway play, "Getting Into Heaven"—consider subjects she wanted to explore as a writer. Both works share a common theme.

"I enjoy looking at families who, to the outside world, are out of the norm," says the affable and articulate Gary, Ind. native during a phone interview. "But what's universal in these families is their love for their children. 'Getting Into Heaven' could easily have been subtitled 'Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll, and Motherhood.' "

"Heaven," which bowed at the Flea Theatre on July 2, evokes the underbelly of the rock-'n'-roll world, awash in drugs and self-destruction. Specifically, it tells the story of Cat Venita (Draper), "a badass rock 'n' roller"; her tormented lesbian relationship with the band's female drummer, Rose (Gretchen Egolf); their beleaguered son, Danny (Rose's biological child); and the frustrated Jed (also a rock 'n' roller), who fathered Danny.

"Most gay women who have seen the play love it," says Draper. "That's because the gayness is incidental. In the rock world, it would be. Of course, there may be gay women, the more militant ones, who don't like it because it doesn't reflect their experiences. I know that there were many black women who were offended by 'The Tic Code' because it showed a successful black man having an affair with a white woman. I can't worry about that."

Draper acknowledges that some audiences—regardless of sexual orientation—may find the whole subject in "Heaven" alien, if not distasteful. No matter.

"You can't please everyone and if you start thinking about it, you'll end up writing pabulum or nothing at all," insists Draper. "When I write a play, the only thing I think about is what I want to do."

Still, there were challenges galore, not least "making sure that all the puzzles fit and that the plot is tight. A lot of people underestimate how hard it is to write a good plot," observes Draper. "It's much easier to write good dialogue.

"When I wrote 'The Tic Code,' I learned a great deal about storytelling. In a film, one scene has to flow seamlessly into the next and it's largely done visually, not with dialogue. And then there's the film's structure, which helped me write the play. From the beginning, a movie has to build to the end, whereas with a play, it usually builds to the end of Act I, and then starts again, following an intermission, with Act II."

As a performer, Draper's biggest obstacle in playing Cat was singing on stage. "I always knew I could sing, but I'm shy about singing. I have an unusual voice and that's all you need for rock 'n' roll. You don't need a trained voice, but one with soul."

She adds, "I wanted to play a character like Cat and I might even have been cast in it if the role was written, but roles like this are not being written. Interesting roles are not being written for women over 30."

Draper would surely be in a position to know something about the scripts that are out there. Consider her extensive resume. Besides co-starring on "thirtysomething," for which she received an Emmy nomination, she has had recurring roles on "Gideon's Crossing," "Monk," and "The Larry Sanders Show." Among Draper's recent theatre appearances are "The Exonerated" (The Culture Project), "The Guys" (The Flea), "Closer" (Broadway), "Blur" (Manhattan Theatre Club), and "Trudy Blue" (Manhattan Class Company).

A Pleasurable Obsession

Draper grew up in Northern California, the daughter of a venture capitalist who worked for the U.N. Development Programme and later headed an import-export bank. Draper's grandfather, William Draper, Jr., was a founder of Planned Parenthood and served as Under Secretary of the Army under Truman, helping to develop the Marshall Plan.

Draper remarks that there was nothing in her background that was especially artistic. Nonetheless, from the outset, she wanted to be an actress, and loved writing as well.

Still, neither she—nor her friends and family—ever thought of acting as a real profession. As an undergraduate, she majored in English at Yale University and toyed with the idea of writing children's books with accompanying drawings. Indeed, her first (undergraduate) effort at children's literature was greeted with such enthusiasm by her professors that they sent it along to a publisher, who responded with interest.

"But when I realized how much revision the editors wanted, I came to the conclusion that I just didn't want to do it. I didn't enjoy the work enough," Draper observes. "I know we're always told to do what's challenging. Perhaps we should be told to do what comes effortlessly."

That's not to say that writing and acting are effortless endeavors for her, she stresses. Quite the contrary; but, unlike book writing and illustrating, it's a "pleasurable obsession." After earning her undergraduate degree, Draper went on to the Yale School of Drama, where she received her M.F.A.

By her own admission, she has been one of the fortunate few, working steadily as an actress with virtually no dry periods in 20-plus years. "I was fired from my one summer job as a waitress," she says matter-of-factly.

Clearly, her major career turning point was landing her "thirtysomething" gig. "I'm very proud of being part of that show. It was an icon, not just another stupid sitcom. And I started writing on that show, too. All of us had input."

Following its run, however, Draper suffered from typecasting. "In Hollywood, they like keeping actors in molds and they don't give audiences the credit for being able to accept an actor, identified with one role, playing a totally different character. That's one of the reasons I moved back to New York. I've never had a typecasting problem in theatre."

Nevertheless, Draper feels that actors are far too often "at the mercy of mediocre scripts."

"Writing gives me a feeling of power," Draper asserts. "Even if I can't play every role on stage, I can play them as I write them. Because I'm an actress, my plays are very actable."

Writing has also informed her approach to writers when she's wearing her acting hat. "I have a clearer understanding of what writers do, so I feel I can talk to them and discuss changes. Yes, it's possible that since I'm a writer they may listen to me, but I think they listen to me because I have more confidence. I have found that most writers are open to good suggestions. You don't have to worry about protocol."

At the moment, Draper's thoughts are most focused on "Getting Into Heaven," hoping audiences grasp the play's central theme: " 'Heaven' is appreciating your life on earth. When Cat dies, she learns that the beautiful [but not fully enjoyed] moments in life are what she'll experience in heaven." Quoting a line from her play, Draper sums up the work's vision: " 'On earth, [the beautiful but unappreciated moments] are like watching a 3-D movie without the special glasses. In heaven, they give you the glasses.' "

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